Cairo: Scenes from a Revolution
“All books about all revolutions begin with a chapter that describes the decay of tottering authority or the misery and sufferings of the people. They should begin with a psychological chapter, one that shows how a harassed, terrified man suddenly breaks his terror, stops being afraid.” -Ryszard Kapusciski
—Jan. 25, 2:58 p.m.
Tahrir Square is teeming with protesters. There are men of all ages and some women, too. There are teenagers in sweatshirts and baseball caps, a few men in traditional Muslim garb and females wrapped in hijabs.
The police, decked out in black riot gear, are outnumbered 100 to one as they attempt to corral the uprising like sheepdogs herding cattle. But the authorities have an advantage: the protesters have yet to psychically overcome three decades of fear ingrained in them by the secret police.
From the distance, on the other side of the square, a green tank inches closer to the crowd. On the roof is a water cannon that shoots a powerful warning shot in the air — it’s falling mist a harbinger of what’s to come.
No one moves.
As the cannon descends on the protesters, they lower their heads to accept the blow. First their faces. They hold their breaths and attempt not to choke. It pounds their necks. It pounds their chests. Some in the front lines fall backwards into the arms of the people behind them.
One protester, a teenager in a red T-shirt, does more than just take it.
As the others hold their ground, he darts up to the tank, steps onto the vehicle’s front bumper and hoists himself up onto the roof. Atop the tank, he reaches for the cannon and aims the water stream away from the protesters. For a moment, the teenager keeps the cannon’s aim away from his countrymen. A plainclothes officer follows him onto the roof and jumps onto his back. The two fall to the pavement below.
The plainclothes officer jumps on top of the protester’s chest and pounds his face with closed fists. Seeing this, the front half of the crowd fall to their knees, bow to the ground and pray. Officers in riot gear charge the young man as he is beaten. When they lift him up, his face is bloodied. His legs buckle as they pull him to his feet and drag him behind police lines.
“Who will be the next hero?” the protesters shout in unison as the man in the red T-shirt is led away. “Who will be the next hero?”
—Jan. 29, 2:11 p.m.
When I step out of the taxi in front of the Ramses Hilton in downtown Cairo, I’m overwhelmed by the noxious fumes emanating from across Tahrir Square — from the charred concrete shell that was once the headquarters of Hosni Mubarak’s National Democratic Party.
The building is razed but the embattled leader of Egypt is still in power.
As I gather my things from the taxi, a sea of Egyptians march by me, following the path of the Nile. They are holding banners and chanting, “The revolution and the army are one.”
It’s a rallying cry reflecting the Egyptian military’s apparent disinterest in quashing the civil unrest.
I reach into my bag for a camera, but I have barely raised it to my eye when three boys, no more than 12 years old, run up and cover the lens with their hands. “No photos,” they repeat until the camera is at my side. Fear of the secret police is rife.
24 hours ago Egyptians withstood of a day of beatings, gassing, and rifle fire to take Tahrir and begin their revolution. In response to this defeat, officials have removed all police from the country. In their place, the army has moved in to help secure the country.
Earlier, an Egyptian friend with military contacts warns me against going to Tahrir.
“If the military sides with the people, the protesters might see this as a license to riot and pillage,” he says, adding that the violence could be directed at all things western, including myself.
“Do not go downtown,” he says.
On the drive from my upper-class neighborhood of Maadi into the center of Cairo, all police checkpoints are vacated. The roads are littered with blown-out shells of armored police wagons and teenage boys have taken it upon themselves to direct the traffic at intersections.
The streets are flooded with thousands, giddy with revolution and the intoxicating effects of living history.
Aside from passive soldiers posing for photographs with civilians, and boys mounted atop tanks like they were overgrown ponies, there are no traces of authority.
My phone rings, a friend from back in Maadi.
“They have opened up the prison,” he reports. “Thugs are walking up and down the streets. There are gunshots. I just saw a guy with a bullwhip. All the boabs are standing guard outside their buildings with knives and clubs.”
There is speculation that the release of prisoners and the absence of police is a tactic by Mubarak: Destabilize the country, terror ensues, then Mubarak and his police swoop back in and restore order to a grateful populace.
When you fear for your life, the longview goes out the window.
Inside the lobby of the Ramses Hilton, I’m greeted by a pleasant hotel desk clerk who is seemingly unmoved by the chaos outside.
“How long will you be here, sir?” the gentleman asks.
“Definitely tonight,” I say. “Maybe longer.”
He nods and types on his computer.
“Sir, would you like our room with the demonstration view?”
A bell-hop takes my bags and shoots me a smile.
“Welcome to our revolution,” he says.
From my room I can see roving bands of protesters across Tahrir Square, isolated fires and the Nile under a purple night.
—Jan. 30, 4:05 p.m.
The Ramses Hilton is a fortress. Roughly 50 yards from the front door are two tanks, a smattering of soldiers, and a barricade that protect the guests from the growing instability of the Cairo street.
I step outside to get some air and a glimpse of the chanting crowds headed to Tahrir Square. From where I stand — in the Green Zone of the Hilton — the chants are distant but growing in confidence. In an instant, the din is pierced by the sound of broken glass and the shrill scream of a woman. Someone has breached the perimeter.
A dusty red coup is speeding toward me leaving panicked bystanders in its wake. I turn and begin to run for cover.
Pop! The sound of a gun. Like a baseball bat hitting my hamstrings. I’m shot.
I run my hands across the back of my legs. All control over the lower half of my body disappears and I am thrown chest first on the pavement. For a second I laid there, face to the ground, as the pain and paranoia set in.
I came to Cairo to teach at a private school, but since the uprising in Tunisia, I’ve been filing dispatches under a pseudonym for a blog based in New York. For the past week I’ve been on the streets, with Egyptians, photographing, tweeting and reporting on the revolution. In that moment, face down on the curb in front of the Hilton, I wonder if I’m under suspicion and have I’ve been targeted by the secret police. I feel utterly alone and in that moment decide I have to leave the country.
I’m carried inside the lobby and taken to my room by a team of security officers. A doctor follows behind us.
“Rubber bullets,” the doctor says looking at my legs. “You’re lucky.”
An hour later, I limp onto the elevator and run into a reporter from CNN. I tell him of the drive-by, the rubbers bullet and the security unit in my room.
“It’s getting hard here,” he says. “This afternoon, some of our guys almost had the shit kicked out of them by the secret police.”
“Put some ice on those legs,” he tells me before exiting.
In the hotel bar, the head of security approaches.
“Good news,” he says, “The army has caught the criminals who shot you,” he continues. “They are back in jail now.”
For a moment, I’m relieved to be merely a man in the wrong place at the wrong time. I see the hotel manager and want to share the good news.
“They caught the criminals who shot me,” I say.
“You were not shot by criminals,” he replies. “If they were criminals, then they would have used real bullets.”
“Then who shot me?”
The manager flashes a grin implying I should connect the dots myself, and then walks away.
—Feb. 1, 2:15 a.m.
I’ve spent the last 24 hours in hiding at a friend’s apartment in Maadi.
I am on the phone with the State Department in Washington. They are telling me to go to the airport, where my name is on a manifest for an outgoing flight.
“There is danger on the roads,” I say. “I am hearing reports of people being pulled out of their cars.”
I am told that unfortunately the embassy cannot pick me up.
I will make an attempt on my own in the morning.
Before we hang up, I am cautioned against sleeping near any windows or doors.
—Feb. 1, 8 a.m.
For 200 Egyptian pounds I find a driver willing to take me to the airport. At this time of the morning, the protesters are fast asleep and the army controls the traffic on the major highways.
As my car heads toward the airport, the streets of Maadi are dark and empty, save for the vigilante groups warming their hands over charcoal fires. Storefronts are dark and empty. Giant broken tree limbs and felled street lamps have been dragged into the middle of the street to slow vehicles.
At the intersections, ad hoc neighborhood patrol groups peer into the windows of passing cars. They carry clubs.
Two weeks ago this was one of the most vibrant neighborhoods in Cairo — now it looks like a war zone.
We never talked about Egyptian politics in my class, but the shadow of Mubarak was always present. I remember once trying to explain the meaning of the word “tyrant.”
“Can you think of a world leader who rules forever, simply by instilling fear into the hearts of his people?” I asked.
There was a very uncomfortable silence.
“Don’t answer that question,” I said, and moved the discussion into safer waters.
At the airport, I immediately feel the privilege of being American. While thousands of tourists from the rest of the world are packed into the international terminal, stuck in lines so dense that they bleed into each other to form one entropic mass, the US government has full control of the spacious VIP terminal on the opposite end of the airport.
I wait in a line of twenty and walk straight onto a direct flight to Istanbul without stopping to purchase a ticket. We sign vouchers promising to pay for the flight at a later, more convenient date. On the tarmac, each of us comes off the plane, one row at a time, to identify our bags before authorities put them on the plane.
At the end of this, there is one bag no one claims. It is left behind.
—Feb 13 10:00 PM
Mubarak has been deposed for 36 hours. Egyptians are now free to speak, and they can’t stop talking.
“Things are safe now,” my driver, an Egyptian man in his 50’s explains when he takes my bag at the arrivals gate, “but this country will never be the same.”
We walk out the front doors of the Cairo International Airport, passed army guards securing the entrances. There are no police officers in sight. I ask my driver where they have gone, “protesting for higher pay,” he laughs.
“The Minister of the Interior is under arrest,” he tells me as we stop at the airport tollbooth, “he was found with 8 billion Egyptian pounds. The minister of information, he is also under arrest. Now on the state television, people are calling up and criticizing the government. This has never happened in my life.”
We continue on to Maadi. The morning I left Maadi was a warzone, but as we drive through the night, the air is cool, the windows are down, and we move freely through the city while my driver reports all that I have missed.
“This revolution happened because there was no leader,” he tells me as we drive downtown. “In the past when there were protests, authorities arrested all of the leaders. This time when they asked, ‘who are the leaders?’ there were none. There was no one to arrest. It was all planned on Facebook. This American, Mark Zukerberg? He is a genius.”
“The Tunisians showed us this was possible, and they helped us. On twitter they gave us advice during the protests. They told us to bring bottles of Pepsi to the demonstrations. Pepsi is good for treating tear gas.”
We wind through the side streets of my neighborhood. My driver repeats the headlines of the afternoon. The constitution has been dissolved. The Parliament—a product of last November’s fraudulent elections—had been suspended. Egypt will be under martial law for the next six months as the country prepares for elections.
“I have never voted in my life because my voice meant nothing,” he says before we stop and I get out, “Now I will vote.”
—February 15, 1:30 pm
Friday afternoon prayers in Tahrir Square has drawn 100,000 and by mid afternoon downtown Cairo is a Disneyland of patriotism. Tens of thousands of Egyptian families walk through the streets. Children sit on the shoulders of their parents, their faces painted the colors of the flag. Street children rush through the crowd selling Jan 25 bumper stickers and single stemmed roses.
While photographing graffiti from the revolution I come beside the charred remains of a police transport vehicle destroyed during the uprising
As I photograph the truck a 29-year-old man stops beside me. “The government was the first enemy, “ he says, pointing up at the vehicle, “America is the second enemy.”
He asks if I am American. I grin, nod, and introduce myself.
“They arrested and tortured us, but it was part of an American policy to treat us this way,” he continued, “I lost three years of my life in prison. No lawyers. No trials. I just graduated dental school. They accused me of working with a Palestinian terrorist group. Then last year, they told me I could go. Now I’m a practicing dentist.”
There is a pause between us. I try to think of something to say but feel like a fool even opening my mouth. The man senses this, smiles and says, “Our anger is with the US government, but we have nothing against its people.”